At 7.30 am, Phil has the tea ready, and the garage opens up. He has to collect a car from there to take back to England. The garage had refused to let him load it yesterday, for no reason they could give, but that had worked in our favour, because if he had been able to load we would not have met him and spent the evening with him.
After he has loaded up and driven away, we go across to the garage and ask if the quotation is ready. The secretary calls the unpleasant little man, who says he’s not going to the trouble of writing a quotation for people who have asked him to charge batteries. The cost will be 800 euros, and it’s 40 euros for the battery charge.
At 9.00 am I phone our insurance broker. There’s a recorded message. He’s on holiday until the 7th of July. In case of need we should contact his colleague, who only speaks French.
For the next four hours, I am on the phone, giving details, making explanations and trying to work out what to do. Once the insurance company learn that the car is broken down, and not damaged in an accident, they say that all they can do is either put us on a train, or provide us with a hire car. They do not have any responsibility to get the vehicles back to our home nearly 400 miles away.
The insurance lady had suggested that I ask if the garage will buy the car for spare parts, but from their unhelpful attitude so far I very much doubt it, which proves to be correct. They are not going to help us in any way at all. The
little shit belligerent, aggressive, insolent little chap at the garage is now demanding to know what we intend to do about the car that is sitting in the yard, and it’s clear that he’s going to start charging to have it there. Terry connects us one of the charged batteries and drives it to the parking area outside. That’s one small problem solved.
Terry is set on driving home on the batteries, towing the caravan. I am not at all convinced that we’ll be able to make it all the way, and one of us must get home, not only for the dogs but also we have two appointments booked for Wednesday, and I cannot contact either of them by phone from here.
The next option is to ask for a hire vehicle with a tow bar so that we can bring the caravan back. It’s full of equipment, including Terry’s mountain bike, and we cannot leave it there. Yes, says the insurance lady, she will ensure that we have a vehicle with a tow bar.
Backwards and forwards go the phone calls, each time bringing more difficulties. It seems our contract only allows us a small car, not one with a tow bar. Also there is a deposit of up to 500 euros payable up front for the car, depending upon which company provides it. I ask the lady to check with the companies and find out which will accept the smallest deposit, but she says she doesn’t have time to do that. If we go to collect the car and our card payment is rejected, it will be too late to do anything for us today. She is being as helpful as she can, but we’re getting nowhere. At mid-day she says that unless we make up our mind quickly what we want to do, she will not be able to spend any more time on our problem, because she has too many other clients to deal with. It’s now or never.
Terry is still determined to drive the car back, so reluctantly I decide to leave and take the train home. The caravan is well stocked with food, and it’s somewhere to sleep. I hate abandoning ship, but I can’t do anything practical and I can envisage this drama going on for days. Apart from the dogs and appointments, I desperately need to shower and put on some clean clothes. The taxi will collect me in an hour, says the lady, to drive me to Perpignan station.
In fact it arrives ten minutes later, with a very kind driver who says he didn’t like to leave me in such a hot and uncomfortable place, and I’ll be far better off at Perpignan. He drives me to the station, where I collect my tickets.
Perpignan railway station
It’s a strange journey that will skirt the Mediterranean coast eastwards from Perpignan to Montpellier, then swing north to Lyons and from there up to Paris, where it will curve around and turn south to Tours. There I’ll catch a connection to Poitiers.
Even in such stressful circumstances, train travel in France is a delight once you understand it. Your train ticket tells you your carriage and seat number. On the platform an electronic display tells you where to stand so that when the train arrives you walk straight into the correct carriage and find your seat. Also on the platform is a small yellow-headed machine that you need to ‘composte’ your ticket before getting on the train. You stick it in the machine which stamps it with the date. If you don’t the ticket inspector can fine you.
For the first part of my journey on the TGV, I’m ‘upstairs’- it’s a double-decker. It’s spotless, comfortable, peaceful. It arrives and leaves precisely on time.
After two hours I have 8 minutes to change trains at Nîmes. The platform is heaving with people and luggage, so I have to shove some of them out roughly of the way while I find out which part of the platform to stand on. This time I’m in a downstairs seat in an almost empty carriage for the next leg of the journey which will take four and a half hours. Luckily I had put my Kindle in my bag before we set off from home at what now seems a very long time ago, so I have plenty to read. At Valence a group of cheerful men come and sit opposite me and pass around a wooden box filled with luscious golden apricots, for which I am really grateful, because all I’ve had to eat so far today is a hot apple from the caravan.
They leave at Lyon and are replaced by a couple of polite youths with a giant bag of Maltesers. I’m not a chocaholic, but they are my favourites.
They don’t open the bag, but leave it lying tantalisingly within my reach, on the table between us, and as the hours pass I begin to feel hungry and thirsty, so I go to the bar – conveniently located upstairs in the next carriage – to see what they have to offer. There’s quite a long queue, and just one man serving. I’m thinking I’ll have a sandwich and drink of water, but then I see somebody with a steaming bowl of creamy risotto. It takes quite a while to reach the counter, and when I do I find I have insufficient cash for the risotto and the water, so I have to go back to the carriage to find my credit card. When I get back to the bar the queue is even longer, but it’s well worth the wait because it’s possibly the best risotto I’ve ever tasted. I kept the wrapper to remind me of the ingredients which included cream, rice (obviously), mushrooms, courgette, peas, mozzarella, onion, pumpkin seeds, leeks and green asparagus. The very small print showed that it also contained chicken stock, but I’d already eaten half before I saw that.
It’s 9.30 pm when I arrive at St Pierre de Corps. The next train leaves 15 minutes later and reaches Poitiers at 10.30. The insurance lady had told me to wait at the exit for the taxi to collect me, but none does. From the depths of my bag I can hear my phone buzzing, but I can’t get hold of it without everything spilling all over the floor. When I finally answer it, a very angry voice tells me to hurry up and get in the taxi, he has been phoning me for ten minutes. I find him on the taxi rank outside, a huge Humpty Dumpty of a man, and he’s extremely rude. When I say I was told to wait inside for him, he sneers how would he be expected to recognise me out of 200 people on the station? I say I thought he’d have a card with my name on it, and he tosses both hands up in the air to express his disbelief, letting go of the steering wheel as he hurtles through the back streets of the town.
By now I am too hot, sticky, swollen and tired to bother, so I close my eyes and lean back, leaving him to mutter to himself.
After a few moments, he asks me how I found the weather in Paris. I say I haven’t come from Paris, but from Argeles sur Mer. I’ve been on holiday, there, then? No. But my car is broken down. He asks why I’ve left it there, and I explain about needing to get home to the dogs.
Suddenly, as if I’ve waved a magic wand, he changes. He’s a passionate animal lover. He has a five month old chocolate Labrador called Leo, who is adorable and always up to mischief. He also has four cats; sadly he lost a fifth one recently to typhus. The vet said it was highly contagious and all the other cats would get it, but none of them did, thank God. He goes on about all his animals, how they interact and play with each other, how much they mean to him and his wife. I learn about the wonderful kennels where Leo went while they were on holiday, and how he totally destroyed the nice bed the kennel gave him, and how they fed him on the best food. He’d only recently learned that chocolate can kill dogs. Oh la la! Every night he has two squares of dark chocolate, and he’s always given Leo a tiny piece. But the lady at the kennels has told him how dangerous it is – there’s a molecule or something which poisons them. Also that dogs shouldn’t be given pasta, because they can become diabetic from too much carbohydrate. I tell him that dried fruit is dangerous too, particularly sultanas and raisins. He’s going to check that on the Internet. He doesn’t eat raisins, but he does like figs. He gave Leo one, but Leo only played with it, as he did with a cherry. So we continue sharing animal anecdotes until we reach home, by which time we are best friends.
When I walk into the house the dogs stare in astonishment, then delight, although I think they recoil a little from my feet.
So I’m back home, but in the meantime, what’s happened to Terry? His phone battery is flat, so we’ve no means of communicating.